Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mars Attacks: The Not-Exactly-Tough-Call On Spielberg's Magnum Blah.

The Good: Decent enough acting, General plot is cool
The Bad: Characters don't pop, Confused details, Mediocre use of best actors, Problematic specific plot
The Basics: When martians invade, Tom Cruise proves he can act like a jerk and the audience finds themselves left with special effects movie that does not add up.

I have to give some credit to anyone who tries to remake something that has been made in at least three formats and tries to put their own touch on something that is essentially already ingrained in the American collective unconscious. That said, Steven Spielberg's stab at War Of The Worlds fails to recreate the experience of the alien invasion hoax perpetrated on the radio, the intrigue of H.G. Well's novel or even add something extraordinary and new. Instead, in his attempt to visualize an alien invasion from Martians, Spielberg and his writing staff create a jumble of images tied together by unlikable characters and mediocre acting.

Ray Ferrier, day laborer and weekend father of two, has his children for the weekend. Lucky him. Instead of having a great time together, Ray, Robbie and Rachel (yes, the names in the movie are that bad) end up on the forefront of an extraterrestrial invasion. Giant tripods rise from the earth bearing martians bent on blowing up everything in their path. And that just so happens to be the Ferrier family as they flee from the New York City area toward Boston. The martians are everywhere, blowing everything up.

Or capturing people.

Or bothering to look into basements.

Or creating some sort of larger biological organism over apparently random surfaces.

It's not quite clear. The best potential strength of War Of The Worlds (which is more accurately titled "Humans Getting Their Asses Kicked By Invading Martians") is also its greatest weakness. Ray Ferrier and his family are pretty much common folks. An alien invasion from their perspective has the potential to be interesting. They aren't scientists, they aren't military. So whatever they experience, they are clueless as to the motives, biology or methods of the alien invaders. That's a cool idea, as far as I'm concerned.

The problem is, we are left wondering about a lot of key aspects of important concepts in the movie. So, we hear a lot of theories in War Of The Worlds and it is pretty well established that the martians deposited their tripods on Earth underground some time ago (a reasonable estimate would be at least 600 years ago, as there are several under the New York City area that would have been pretty hard to disguise dropping off once the city was there) but we have no real idea when. Some characters theorize they've been underground for millions of years, which seems silly. After all, the further back the plans for alien conquest go, the more ridiculous the waiting period becomes (i.e. it's much easier to conquer cavemen than it is to enslave 21rst Century folk).

Spielberg, unfortunately, deals with the problem of perspective by simply adding a great number of levels to the invading force. This is problematic because they are contradictory and confusing, not from a perspective sense but from a basic storytelling concept. So, for example, when we first see the martians, they are microwaving every person in their path. Okay, the viewer is meant to understand they are hostile and are out to destroy all human life. We can live with this. Near the end of the movie, however, humans are being captured and liquefied by the martians for either power source, food or to create the strange biological mass that is growing all around places the martians have effectively cleared out. The martians have pretty sophisticated shielding, so unless they are even more wasteful than humans, this weird development near the end seems like it ought to have happened right away. Unless, of course, one is simply making a movie with special effects and assumes the audience has no reasoning skills or desire to understand what the movie is actually about.

The secondary problem with this type of perspective is that when we are following ordinary people, one would expect them to have pretty ordinary experiences, even in the midst of an alien invasion. In this incarnation of War Of The Worlds, Ray Ferrier and family are the ordinary people who happen to be in all the right places at the right time to learn about the invaders, witness all the phases, provide information and help do their part to repel the aliens. It's silly. Dreamcatcher (reviewed here!) had the potential to explore this perspective better, as did Signs (reviewed here!). I've yet to see a film where the common person dealing with the invasion is explored effectively and realistically.

The tragedy here is that Spielberg had the chance to truly nail it with his attempt. With War Of The Worlds, most all viewers already know how it ends. The magic of this particular story is that because (essentially) random chance foils the martians, we don't need our protagonist to be a hero or even remotely heroic. We don't even need our protagonist to survive necessarily.

Spielberg seemed to realize this in part by having us follow a fairly unlikable protagonist. Ray Ferrier is portrayed as a jerk. He's not terribly into his children or his job and his initial characterization could have worked wonderfully, had it only stuck. Instead, Spielberg's obsession with heroes comes into play and most of Ray's negative qualities are sublimated for the chance to contribute and be heroic, even if in minor ways.

Far more interesting is his daughter, Rachel. The story would have been the ultimate in creepy and intriguing had Ray been killed early in the movie, leaving poor Rachel to fend for herself. Instead, Rachel is dragged along as a character foil for Ray, not developing a character, delivering the few clever lines of the movie, and mostly relegated to standing in the background screaming.

Rachel is played by Dakota Fanning, who I've oft cited as one of the few talents evident already in the next generation of actresses. War Of The Worlds wastes the considerable talents of the girl who blew audiences away in I Am Sam. Fanning is condemned to a role of screaming and not doing much other than that. She does it well, though.

The lead, Ray, is played by Tom Cruise and I suppose he is acting well in War Of The Worlds. His character is unlikable and he comes across as ultimately unlikable. He's a jerk. Cruise plays that well.

It's not enough to recommend the movie, though. This incarnation of War Of The Worlds takes on just a little too much to keep us with such improbable protagonists (the last portion of the movie, where Ray and Rachel are hiding out in a survivalist's basement just does not fit) and there are a lot of editing decisions that are noticeable and awkward. There are cuts while Ray is driving, for example, that simply aren't timed right making the visual impression of the film more sloppy than chaotic.

For other alien invasion films, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Alien Trespass
Battlefield Earth


For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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